Strikes, militants and the coming divorce between Labour and the unions

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The Independent Online

Does anyone really believe that Britain is going back to the Seventies? Of course not. It only feels like that because Gordon Brown announced huge increases in public spending at the start of the week and public-sector trade unions rediscovered ancient traditions of militancy by the week's end.

There is some connection between the two, even if the Tube strike was not about pay. At a time of high employment and rising public spending, state employees feel secure in their jobs and want their pay to catch up with the private sector's. What is totally different from 1978 is that the public finances are in a position to allow them to do so.

There is also a much less sharp sense of betrayal among the lowest-paid state employees. The minimum wage and the substantial increase in tax credits for those on low incomes have made a difference to hospital ancillary staff, school dinner ladies and many council workers. But there is also a sense felt perhaps most keenly by those just above the lowest paid that the gap between them and the rich has continued to widen under the Blair government. That is the kind of sentiment which has helped to fuel the anti-Blairite backlash in Amicus, the merged AEEU engineering union and MSF.

But the Government agrees that public servants ought to be paid more and has the money available. The paradox is that Tony Blair ought to be taking on the unions and is not. Yet he is as unpopular as if he were. Everyone repeats, mantra-like, that more money for the public services is conditional on reform. Yet one of the biggest reforms needed – to decentralise pay bargaining – is not even being attempted. If meaningful power is to be devolved to headteachers and hospital managers, it must include the power to set pay – which is still constrained by national pay scales. That might mean a real fight with the trade unions, but at least it would be about something, instead of today's nebulous complaint that Mr Blair is not a union man.

The unions ought to be more distant from the Labour Party anyway, and it is surprising that it has taken so long for the issue to arise. As The Independent always predicted it would be, it is being raised by the unions rather than the party. The party needs the money more than the unions need the illusion of influence.

If putting more distance between party and unions means making Labour's cash crisis worse, so be it. Tighter regulation of donations from rich people and companies should make all the parties poorer. If there is compelling evidence that lack of money hurts some parties unfairly or inhibits democratic choice, then the parties can make the case for more taxpayer funding.

The difficult issue raised by the new union militants is that of the overall balance of employment law. Many union leaders, including Derek Simpson, the new leader of Amicus, find that comparing workers' rights in this country with those on the Continent strikes a chord with their members.

However, this is not the stuff of which a new winter of discontent is made. It is a matter of finding the right balance between what is good about the British model, which arguably delivers full employment, and what is good about the Continental model, which arguably delivers more fulfilling employment. The French 35-hour working week, for example, has turned out to improve the quality of life for employees while enhancing flexibility for employers.

A patchy strike by council workers and the election of a leftwinger to lead a large rebranded union does not constitute a crisis between the Labour government and the unions. But it ought to prompt a reappraisal of the relationship, by both sides.

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